“Look inside my soul,
and you can find gold,
and maybe get rich.”
- Kendrick Lamar
Boy, did I pick a time to start publishing my memoir, huh? For those who missed my first post, last week I started sharing chapters from my story living through the First Great Cryptobubble of 2017, as one of the first 150 or so employees at ConsenSys.
What were the first cryptobillionaires thinking as word spread? How did we convince the masses to believe? That’s what I’m hoping to show you.
And now without further ado…
Dubai, August 2017. ETH: $296.
We read the questions aloud, one by one. Most of our team had not yet met Joe, and their eyes and mouths opened wide at the idea of being in the same room as a billionaire, a revolutionary, someone who had invented something that the entire world was talking about. COO of the Ethereum Project, co-founder of Ethereum, founder of ConsenSys. Joe had more titles than a character on Game of Thrones. I was a few months into the job at ConsenSys and had met Joe one on one last month, so I felt less nervous than the rest of the team. But I was still impressed that he had flown from New York to help us handle what we were jokingly calling “growing pains.” It spoke volumes about the value of our fledgling office, halfway across the world, and the importance of our work to his grander vision.
The government of Dubai had recently announced it was dedicating massive funding to becoming a global leader in blockchain, which they (and we) saw as the next revolution in tech. The experts kept saying blockchain was soon going to be a change agent ‘on the scale of the Internet.’ ConsenSys had been one of the first companies to fully dedicate itself to building blockchain software since 2014. Finally, blockchain’s moment in the sun had arrived, and Joe wanted the Dubai office to be the vanguard of ConsenSys’s growth worldwide. The hype train was about to leave the station, and it was speeding towards Dubai. But right now, we needed Joe’s help, and badly.
We were sitting in the conference room at a five-star hotel in the heart of downtown. It would have been an understatement to describe the weather outside as sweltering, but the building AC was cranked to the max as panes of gold-tinted glass kept the room from getting too bright as the sun bore down outside. Whenever Joe visited ConsenSys’ offices around the world we typically held town halls like this. Clem, our new receptionist, wiped her brow a bit. She was friendly but always nervous, and when Joe had plopped down in the adjacent seat her eyes bugged out a little behind her glasses. She tried to put her tea cup down without too much of a clink as Bilal, our local operations lead, read out questions the team had submitted beforehand in his best podcast voice.
“What are our plans for growth in the next year?”
Joe had come from our NYC headquarters to meet with senior officials in the government here, who were now our flagship clients globally. Everyday they paid a publicist to announce in the press that these blockchain investments would unlock the door for Dubai to become the “Silicon Valley of the desert.” CNN, CNBC, and other international news were serving up cheesy headlines on Dubai and blockchain daily with dramatic shots of men in headdresses looking out over the desert from a helicopter. The entire room strained to hear Joe’s low, even voice. Someone had just asked Joe if he saw himself as the ‘Elon Musk’ of blockchain, which made him chuckle. The collective awe in the room seemed to float in the air. Years later, I look back and wonder if Joe had let the feeling sink in and enjoyed the moment. Our future town halls would not show the same deference.
“Blockchain is going through a hypergrowth phase,” Joe answered. “We are now firmly in the geopolitical orbit, with our clientele spanning major banks in Europe and governments in Asia. We cannot estimate this kind of exponential change, but I assure you it will be a great and wild ride. The work of this team will be critical and we will continue to prioritize it.” Everyone on the team smiled in triumph. Our techno-messiah had spoken. The Dubai team had narrowly avoided catastrophe, as we ran into walls trying to close deals in a country where no one took startups seriously. We preached a technological revolution to government agencies that saw virtue in moving slowly. No one seemed to believe us when we said a cryptographic database would change their lives forever by re-engineering the financial industry from the ground up and automating bureaucratic processes like issuing land titles. Our projects were understaffed, leading to tedious infighting from overwork. The infighting led to accusations of a lack of leadership. We felt the NYC and other offices had done little to help, abandoning us to our lonely crossings of the desert.
Have patience, Joe was telling us, because the best is yet to come. The company would continue to grow, and help would soon be on the way. Why else was Joe here except to tell us of the coming rapture?
I felt similar relief at Joe’s words. There was a power vacuum in Dubai, and I saw an opening for myself, a washed up management consultant, to redeem my career by taking the reins and leading us into battle against IBM, our chief competitor. I had just been tapped to try and beat them in what could be our biggest deal yet. Just before this meeting Joe and I had met with the CEO of one of Dubai’s largest companies who I thought could help us win the contract.
“But didn’t they just hire you?” my soon-to-be fiancee Saira had asked me over FaceTime before Joe’s visit, wondering how the biggest deal could be handed to a new hire. She lived in New York still and was bewildered by everything I did, given she worked in medicine where experience and training were what counted. Not here. Blockchain had made some sense to her when I explained it, but mostly she said it “sounded like the future” and trusted that I was right.
“Everyone’s new in this industry,” I explained. “Did it matter if you joined Apple in 1985 instead of 1984?” I was counting my chickens’ grandchildren already. But I knew I was not the only one doing so in the industry.
Bilal moved on to read the next question. “Would you ever sell the company?” he asked. The room stirred at this one. Bilal and a few others had been hired early enough to have equity shares in ConsenSys, and an acquisition would make them rich. I myself had yet to find out how many shares I had, but I half-assumed half-hoped that if I closed the multi-million dollar deal I was working on it would inevitably be a large number. I had been doing the math in my head recently on how many billions we would have to be worth for me to retire.
Joe was unmoved by the question about selling the company. “Who would buy us?” he posed to the group. The idea of an acquisition was not as exciting to him. Selling the company would mean passing up on his vision, which was not to just replace all traditional money with digital currency - a mind bogglingly audacious goal in itself - but to use money as a base for redefining the economy, using smart contracts on Ethereum to automate government services like real estate deeds or even getting a passport. Society could be trustless, he liked to say.
I believed we could achieve some of that at least, and we could start by digitizing the ministries here in Dubai. So far, we had only found bloated bureaucracies, but we knew that here shaking the right hands might lead to eye watering sums being thrown at the seemingly impossible. In that I had another advantage on my side, another reason I had come to Dubai: “brown privilege,” my term for my ability to seamlessly code switch from a greeting in Urdu to the Pakistani CTO to presenting to a group of clients in my American accent. I had never appreciated until moving here the authority that accent carried, the association with Hollywood and Coca-Cola and all things capitalism, although these days the rest of the world was more addicted to Netflix and Facebook than the caffeinated offerings of Brand America™. I knew how to play my part.
Joe had another reason for his disinterest in the question about an acquisition: he was already astronomically wealthy. It was well known that he had been the biggest investor in Ethereum, purchasing a significant sum when the cryptocurrency was only worth a few pennies on its first day. The price of Ether was in the hundreds of dollars now, and so he could easily be worth $5 billion - or more. No one, in the company or out, knew the exact number. We constantly speculated, as did the media, about how much he was actually worth. What we did know was that our project in Dubai was helping Ethereum to be taken more seriously by big corporations than a few years ago, when cryptocurrency was considered a scam and pastime for drug dealers. More positive news was good for the price. Joe repeated his question. “Would someone buy us?”
“IBM!” Amir exclaimed, waving one hand in the air above his head. “Their blockchain team needs us badly, and we have the best technology!” Amir was a technical manager who had joined a month prior and his enthusiasm for Ethereum was still infectious. Genius, he would proclaim every time we reviewed an architecture diagram on the whiteboard. Still, even though Amir was right about IBM’s shortcomings, Joe would never sell to them. They represented the opposite of his vision: big corporates maintaining control over the status quo.
Joe grinned in response, with the assuredness of a talking head on your favorite talking head network. “They won’t be buying us,” he noted.
“No?” Amir asked, slightly surprised.
“We will buy IBM before IBM buys us,” Joe said, with a slight smile.
The room broke out in spontaneous applause.
In the Beginning
“This planet [Earth] has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
In the beginning, there was the Code.
And the Code was with Satoshi, and the code was Bitcoin.
And Bitcoin was full of bugs. Satoshi fixed these bugs, whomever he was. We will probably never know who, since Satoshi was just a pseudonym used on an Internet. He (or she) has never existed anywhere else.
But we know a few things about his motives. In September 2008, as the world economy was in flames, Satoshi posted the code for Bitcoin online, as well as a paper entitled, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” For decades, hackers had been trying to build something similar: a secure, digital currency. They had been perpetually blocked by the “double spend” problem, which meant that, because anything digital can be simply copied and pasted, there was no truly secure way to ensure that any “e-money” could not be counterfeited. Digital bills could be easily counterfeited, which meant software-based money would be worthless. But now Satoshi believed he had a solution.
This might seem to the reader like a hobby for Internet oddballs living in basements, but it had the potential to redefine something we all care about: money. (Try not to clutch your pearls too tightly.) “Fiat” is worthless by itself: it only has value because we believe it does. Humans have used different things - paper, rare seashells, gold - but each was held up by the same belief. It can be shocking if you really process it: that people slave everyday for things that come out of printers, or out of mud, or washed up on the beach.
The year is 2009. The price of Bitcoin (BTC) is $0.
Money represents something else: control. The US government regulates money, which means it controls the banks, and therefore has an iron grip on much of the economy across the globe. Developing countries from China to the Caribbean, desperate for a stable, secure currency, use the dollar for their economies. Without an alternative, the world is stuck with an American superpower. We can send an email to China in a thousandth of a second, but sending $100 to your neighbor takes three days. All thanks to US laws.
The famed economist Milton Friedman had once said, years before the Internet existed, that reliable e-money was what would make computers truly revolutionary and reduce the power of governments. But with the dollar under a stranglehold, that revolution was stalled.
Satoshi created software to solve that problem. He called it Bitcoin. And then he disappeared.
This goal is so bold as to invite ridicule. Was Bitcoin really meant to be taken seriously as a currency? Or was it meant to be a joke? Was the fact that Satoshi gave himself the first million Bitcoins proof that he was serious or that he was playing a prank on us all?
The year is 2010. The price of BTC is one third of a penny.
At first, Bitcoin was just a toy for a few bored cryptographers to play with in the sandbox. But in 2010, Bitcoin arrived in the public consciousness through the website Silk Road. Silk Road was a marketplace for drugs, sex, syringes, anything illegal you could imagine and often worse. Ross Ulbricht, its founder, declared his Satoshi-like ideals on LinkedIn: he built Silk Road “to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind.”
The year is 2011. BTC is worth $1.
Silk Road soon became the first reliable and safe way to buy weed without meeting a shady dealer. Word got out, and the demand for Bitcoin began to grow with the demand for cannabis lollipops, and the price of the cryptocurrency started to increase. Suddenly, one could make a killing simply “investing” in Bitcoin. Only 21 million Bitcoins would ever be created, which gave it more worth than flimsy fiat issued on paper, or even gold. The seashells had become digital.
The year is 2012. BTC is now $12.
Thanks to Silk Road, the first crypto-enthusiasts turned out to be potheads and anarchists. These soapbox libertarians preached the new “Bitcoin standard,” and proclaimed that it would be the future of money. Unfortunately, their safe haven quickly turned dark: sinister users turned to selling harder drugs than weed, or worse, child pornography. It was like Amazon crossed with a penitentiary, but with Bitcoin instead of cigarettes as currency.
The year is 2013. Bitcoin reaches nearly $1000.
Ulbricht’s ideals ceded to power and paranoia. Enemies proliferated. Ulbricht soon offered Bitcoin to a drug dealer to take care of his ‘problems’:
(FriendlyChemist) is causing me problems. Are you still looking for him or now that you've found Xin have you given up? I would like to put a bounty on his head if it's not too much trouble for you. What would be an adequate amount to motivate you to find him? Necessities like this do happen from time to time for a person in my position.
People would live and die over Bitcoin, just as they did over the green pieces of paper. I first heard of Bitcoin around this time, as the mania was attracting its first mainstream media attention. Geoff, one of my nuttier colleagues, put half of his bonus into Litecoin, which I had never even heard of, although I was also pretty sure he had a drug problem and so I felt unsure about his judgment. I had only read bad things about Bitcoin in the headlines, but I was learning to distrust that as well: a project around mortgage lenders I was working on had been in the news two or three times that year, and every story I read seemed to be a caricature of what I knew to be true, as a policeman’s sketch says as much about the policeman. There had to be more than met the eye. I stared at the screen, mouse hovering over the buy button, but decided I was better off saving the money for grad school. If only.
The FBI had begun to hunt for Silk Road’s mastermind, piecing together Ulbricht’s identity from his various screeds on Internet forums. He was arrested a year later and now sits in federal prison. Bitcoin became synonymous with nefarious activity. If the love of money is the root of all evil, Bitcoin was its poisonous flower.
It is late 2013. Bitcoin has crashed to $500.
But not everyone believed that cryptocurrency’s potential ended with Bitcoin. Vitalik Buterin, a wunderkind at university in Canada, wrote of an even grander vision in 2013 - one where a currency like Bitcoin could be itself made programmable. With just a bit more code, crypto could be more than just currency.
Satoshi was Prometheus, having brought Bitcoin to humanity, but Vitalik expanded on the idea with a proposal to create currency ‘smart contracts,’ to automate everything that involved money. Trade, banking, even salaries could be automated. Ethereum would deduct payment from your account as soon as Amazon delivered a package - no bank or credit card necessary. He named the concept Ethereum, after the ether that surrounds all of us. Joe joined Vitalik when the idea was in its infancy, deploying his Bitcoin millions to fund others who wrote the code and created the Ethereum Foundation to market its mission. Ethereum quickly became a rival to Bitcoin, and the fundamentalists hated it, doubling down on their beliefs. But Vitalik, Joe, and the other co-founders had their sights on something bigger: a new trust layer for the Internet, and Ethereum as a computer for the world. An Internet without middlemen.
It is 2014. Ethereum is thirty cents. The time for revolution has come.
Dubai, March 2017. ETH: $41.
Weeks before I ever heard the phrase “world computer,” I sat in my apartment in Dubai with the curtains drawn. My cell buzzed. It was Sevag, the partner I worked for, or my boss’ boss in other words. My manager had warned me to expect an angry phone call over the weekend. “You know, when I met you,” the partner yelled, “you seemed like a 6 out of 10, 7 out of 10 maybe, but now you're more like a 3 out of 10.” He had no mercy even on a Saturday afternoon.
I was then working at my job before ConsenSys, at Strategy&, the once legendary consultancy named Booz&Co that was now a distant fourth behind McKinsey, BCG, and Bain. As a high powered consultant, I charged clients thousands of dollars for advice I was not qualified to give, fulfilling the dream of every MBA graduate. By moving to tax-free Dubai, I could see the world and live in the lap of luxury. In the Middle East I would fit in easily as a brown man. Yet my genius plan had now gone horribly awry.
I had returned the day before from Riyadh, where our client was headquartered. On a recent trip, I had been interrogated by a security officer outside the compound where foreigners like us stayed. He asked for my passport and scowled at me when I could not produce it instantly. The automatic rifle slung over his shoulder swung back and forth as I rummaged through my bag and under the seat. I tried not to look at the military jeep behind him, its large gun turret standing ominously. This intense security, I learned, had been put in place after terrorists had attacked a number of expatriate residences, an incident immortalized in a Jamie Foxx film creatively named The Kingdom. The guard began to castigate me in Arabic. Where was my passport? I found these guards more menacing than any imaginable terrorist threat. Three phone calls later a colleague located a photocopy of my passport, which was enough for us to pass through. (The passport was later located under a pizza box.) Since that day I had looked over my shoulder constantly.
Now I felt my heart pumping out of anxiety, just as it had then. The fear of everything I associated with this job collided with the fear of being fired. I was not performing great but I did not deserve to be so insulted. It was hard enough to deal with the client, where my days mostly consisted of being yelled at by Saudi men in white headdresses. The evenings then consisted of being yelled at by Lebanese men in black suits. I considered why Sevag had expected so much and now I was rated so lowly. Growing up as a Pakistani-American in Boston, I had always felt the nagging sense of being an other, an outsider, but here I was labeled to the contrary: an American. My first day on the job my manager flaunted my credentials to the customer: projects with JP Morgan and the Department of Defense and other names signaling America’s corporate supremacy over the world. Both the clients and my team expected a shoot-first cowboy, full of confidence and swag and Big Dick Energy. Instead they felt they had another meek brown man. That was the only explanation I had for why the partners treated me like an Uber driver.
“I think we’ll figure things out this week,” I said, trying to show the self-assurance I thought he wanted from me. “I’ve delivered for bigger clients, from JP Morgan to Bloomberg.” I hoped the Americana might impress him.
The name dropping did little to buy Sevag’s clemency. “Things better improve this week,” he growled, “or you’re going home.” He hung up. The room swayed around me. I fantasized momentarily about taking an Uber straight to the airport, escaping to never return, the way all the other British and American expats had absconded back in 2009 when the Dubai economy went belly up. The local airport had had to tow away all the Ferraris left to gather dust in the parking lots. America, the country which had just elected Mr. Muslim Ban in 2016, beckoned, lifting her lamp by the golden door. So much for feeling more accepted here in the Middle East. I was doubly displaced, and running was no solution.
Consulting usually involves a lot of bullshitting, and some massaging of the numbers and talk of ‘best practices’ usually works fine in the US. In the Middle East it reaches another level: they do not want to buy advice as much as to be sold a dream. This client wanted to hear our plans for how their backwater IT company could become a world class cybersecurity innovator, and pronto. To win here, I needed to walk on water, and I was in the wrong holy land for that.
I stared at the single ray of sunlight coming through the dark curtains. It was early April and the weather outside was still humanly tolerable, in the high 90s, more so than the 110+ degree climate typical of summer. I needed fresh air. I slid open the balcony door and went to look out over the eighth floor swimming pool in our building, about two storeys below my unit. A few Russian money launderers lounged under a palm tree, trying to peek at the British women tanning their backsides on the chaises a few feet away from their hot tub. About one hundred yards to the right, the Burj Khalifa glinted in the sun, blinding said money launderers and admonishing them into some forced bashfulness. In exchange for the weekly torture I took in Saudi Arabia, I got about a day and half of free time to to enjoy this scene on my own.
My mind came back to the phone call just now. That asshole, I thought. One day I would call him from New York and taunt him about who had really won. “You look tired,” he scoffed on the first morning we met, as if taunting me, like a sprinter to his rival before the gun, telling me I would be in last place. I had not come this far in my career or so far from home to give up because someone was mean. I had to find the fire and pride to prove I could do this.
I ended up in Dubai almost by accident, though some accidents feel inevitable. At Columbia, Ahmad had been my best friend during my MBA, a Lebanese genius who dropped out of his PhD program in artificial intelligence to “make some real money” in consulting. We bonded as I regaled him with stories of my reckless travels in Syria and Lebanon in 2009, before the civil war. Being broke I had bought an old used travel guide before my trip to Beirut. I only realized how outdated its recommendations were - things had changed much after the 2006 conflict between Hezbollah and Israel - when I arrived at my hotel to learn it had long since become a brothel. Be careful of the tensions near the border, the guide helpfully noted. Ahmad slapped the table with laughter.
One day after class he asked me if I would be interested in working in management consulting with him at Strategy&. At first Dubai seemed too far, but I had always been interested in the Middle East. I was twelve years old when 9/11 happened, and the other kids kept calling me Arab long enough that I decided to study the language in college and see what “Muslim” really meant. Now Dubai meant a chance to explore this world in person. Plus, the tax savings would do wonders for my student loans.
I was also running low on options. I had always been terrible at finding jobs, starting with my first full day at a bank during college, when I interviewed at Bear Stearns, the famed investment bank that collapsed in early March 2008 and would become the first domino to fall in the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression.
My very well timed visit was on February 16, 2008. So you can see my corporate career started with some issues.
Early in college I had decided that I would focus on my parents’ second assignment, becoming rich, so I focused completely on becoming an investment banker. I did not know much about it, but banking appeals to those full of ambition and lacking in common sense. What I really wanted to be was the Muslim Jerry Seinfeld, but that seemed like a waste of a degree from a preppy liberal arts college in New England. Working 18 hours a day with a bunch of douchebags in expensive suits seemed more like the kind of thing I was meant to do.
We candidates from Williams were all given a tour of the Bear Stearns trading floor, bright-eyed fools taking in the scene with the frenetic energy of a beehive. Red-faced men pounded red keys on screens that showed red, red, red. The numbers and arrows danced on the TV screens hanging everywhere and all of them pointed down. On this particular day LIBOR, the interest rate for lending between banks, had jumped again, making it difficult for Bear to get the financing to continue its normal business. The stock price for Bear had fallen from $172 at its peak, barely a year earlier, and was down to the $80s and still plummeting. So enamored were we with the Street that these signs of near apocalypse did not even register strongly enough to prevent us from puffing up our plumes of false enthusiasm.
The VP assigned to give us a tour spread out his arms and told us dryly it was not a normal day. “Like it is for the rest of the Street, these are challenging times,” he said, pausing. He turned to me with an eyebrow raised. “Are you seriously yawning?” he said, as I struggled to quickly cover my mouth. I had taken a 7 am bus from Williamstown to be here, I explained. “Maybe don’t work at a nuclear plant,” he told me with an expression that was more snarl than smile. I did not get the joke.
I went home without a job but with a large amount of free Bear Stearns swag that is now considered memorabilia. I still keep the pen case on my desk to keep me humble, a reminder of when I had seen genius fail.
Forty interviews later, I had finally learned not to yawn and much better at pretending I was not doing this purely for the money, which, as I have noted, was exactly why I was doing any of it. A respected consulting firm gave me my first job and I arrived on my first day, ready for a life of financial models and filet mignon, only to find I had been assigned to a software team full of Indian uncles who went home at 5pm. The senior partners, old and white, called me by the wrong name while I stewed and silently plotted on how to find other means to scratch my way to the top.
Within a year, I had found another role in consulting but instead with banking clientele. It was not Wall Street per se but it had all the things I had dreamed of: the long hours, endless expense account, and colleagues whose parents had helped them get the job. Fantastic. I soon settled happily into my role as the local deity of Microsoft Excel. Being the numbers guy meant I did not have to go to as many meetings as my prep school colleagues, which felt like a victory at the time.
I had just managed to commit to heart the entire menus of the Cheesecake Factory and Morton’s The Steakhouse when I nearly lost it all. The firm fired me - only to change its mind and hire me back two days later. One manager, Chris, had protested on my behalf, although he suspected it may have only been because the directors had again mixed me up with someone else. My Excel wizardry was unappreciated because they barely knew who I was. I was perhaps lucky there were other Indians to be mixed up with, since my only Black colleague in my office was fired a week later.
But in those two days I had made a decision. I was not going to resign from this life of privilege and be thrown back with the coders so easily. (Although they would eventually move my desk downstairs next to the IT department, lending credence to Chris’ theory. I tried to appreciate the smell of microwaved biryani, remembering the story of Mullah Nasruddin, the star of many fables in the Middle East. One day he slipped walking on a precipice, and was barely hanging on from a plant when he noted a tiger watching below. As he began to pray he noticed a strawberry growing on the vine. “If you should find yourself in a similar position,” the Mullah says, “that strawberry will be the sweetest one you ever eat.”) As I went home downcast and fearful for my future, the tiny, imaginary Bill Gates on my shoulder spoke a few words of inspiration: Go get your MBA.
Two years later I was interviewing with hedge funds and consulting shops, looking for an internship after my first semester at Columbia. Although I had experience in finance, I was disappointed to find out it had been the wrong kind of finance - what the bankers called “back office,” meant for the ninnies who went home to their wives in New Jersey or Long Island. Much as I tried to hide it with buzzwords, they somehow always caught on. The stress of these well-coiffed men scoffing at my poor grasp of net interest income broke my brain in many an interview, as if they could sense the back office stink on me - in one case, after a glass of bad milk at breakfast clawed my insides, quite literally.
The MBA did have its positives. I managed to meet my now fiancee, Saira, a medical student who knew my best friend. Powerless without my expense account, and with my finances drained to a level where the numbers had turned red, I tried to impress her by introducing her to the Prince and Princess of Bahrain at our spring gala. Friends from class, you see. It worked, though I never mentioned I had bought the gala tickets for a quarter of the price off a classmate I knew was a CEO’s son whose girlfriend had dumped him. We both knew he didn’t need the money. I had managed to use my finance education for something, at least.
Now I was job hunting again, with the rejections piling up in my inbox like a barrage of unwanted Christmas email marketing. “You told too many jokes during the interview,” the McKinsey partner told me in the call afterward, pretending to have empathy as he stomped on my ambitions. “We do very serious work.” I was feeling more desperate by the day.
I had started to realize the universe very much wanted me to be with people who looked like me. The mixed up names and seating maps were losing their subtlety. I would focus on consulting in tech, and in a place far enough where I might just escape the tractor beam of white privilege: Dubai.
Dubai was also desperate, as the region sorely lacked talent. They would gladly overpay for an Ivy credentialed schmuck like me, even as I was five minutes late to the interview. I told the interviewer being perpetually late might help me fit in in the Middle East. He did not acknowledge the horribly lame joke, which I immediately regretted, remembering McKinsey’s advice a moment too late. And yet he made me a job offer anyway. I wondered how I had survived the self sabotage. “He did not get the joke,” Ahmad explained to me later, “because he couldn’t sleep on the flight from Dubai to New York. So he just drank the whole way instead. He was really, really hungover.” Humorlessness was what had gotten me here to Dubai, getting yelled at on a Saturday. Which, admittedly, was funny.
I accepted the job offer. Now was the time, if any. If it all worked out, I would pay off my loans, weasel my way back into the States, and I’d have Saira to greet me at JFK on my triumphant return. Or Mom, if things went really south.
I arrived in the Middle East and was immediately shipped off to work with a client in Saudi Arabia. It was 2016 and the country was rapidly ascending in the world order. A hotshot new Crown Prince announced “Vision 2030,” a bold plan to remake the kingdom after oil had collapsed. The Prince believed he was the next Steve Jobs. He went on tours where he posed for photos with Zuckerberg and Trump, who declared Saudi was full of potential. So now here I was in Riyadh, dealing the diktats of the Prince’s wishlist which were springing to life like gods from Zeus’ thigh. Into this world I was parachuted in, full of confidence that Sevag was looking to chop down with Bunyan-like tenacity.
I sat in the lounge at Riyadh airport four days later, having somehow survived the week.
I was flying to New York City - not abandoning Dubai, although that was appealing. I was flying fifteen hours to meet Saira’s parents, to show her I was serious. The only thing I knew about her father was that he had come to the US originally as part of the Pakistani Olympic team, and then subsequently turned a few dollars he saved from odd jobs into a carpet store empire. My friend had run into him at a wedding in the hotel gym, where Saira’s father challenged him to a push up contest. I could not tell this man my career was in tatters. I had to find a way through. At a minimum, I’d need to start with a very firm handshake.
The flight to JFK was at 2 AM, so I had the entire lounge to myself. I nibbled what was left of my fries, having thrown the rest to the orange tabby who lived in the alley outside my building. I hated the Riyadh airport. I had waited twelve hours here for a flight to my grandfather’s funeral in India. I would have to fly back here in barely 48 hours. The call for boarding began and I queued up Elton John’s “Rocketman,” which like probably many other suitcase warriors is my don’t-get-depressed song for long flights. I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife….
I was eating a tasteless jam sandwich just before takeoff when I received a whatsapp message. Mohamed was a recent friend, a Sudanese American I had met at some startup-related events. I had been going to a few of these, hunting and hoping for a company less miserable where I could still slake the ambitions that drove me here. Mohamed’s startup was on the edge of shutting down, so I offered him my extra bedroom and let him keep things going. I had rented this oversized apartment in part to welcome any friends to stay while passing the city. If I was going to struggle through shitty interviews and corporate jobs my whole life, I could use the karmic diversification of a few good deeds, or at least a few favors.
“Might have a new job for you,” he texted. “What do you know about blockchain?”
I'm spell bound to this story. Keep it up. I want more!!